9 Surprising Facts About Animal Intelligence


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Animals are a lot smarter than you know. They don't speak English, and they don't burst into song or action as soon as we turn our backs; nature, sadly, is not a Disney movie. But many of them do display intelligence and a desire to learn, as well as an ability to apply past experiences to present moments and future expectations. The gap between human intelligence and that of animals might be so wide as to be insurmountable, but it's not quite as big as we used to think it was. As anyone who's ever had a pet can tell you, animals are a lot sharper than you might want to believe. In fact, they're a whole lot like us.

  1. Pigs are often as smart as dogs: To a degree, that's a little misleading: animal intelligence is extremely difficult to compare across species, and a large part of what we perceive in dogs and pigs as intellect is really a combination of instinctual behaviors and an ability to be trained and domesticated. Still, there are some broad similarities between the animals, including an ability to reason with simple puzzles or escape from closed areas. Pigs have been known to figure out how to open their pen gates and then stage a prison break for the rest of the animals. Pigs can also understand and use mirrors, something that's beyond many animals.
  2. Elephants mourn the deaths of their own: Elephants are the only animals who have been observed to have legitimate death rituals. They don't just take note of other dead elephants; they actively mourn them and often cover their bodies with branches and leaves. Elephants will often hold vigils for days over the bodies of their fallen relatives, leaving only to get food or water and then coming right back to stand guard over the body. This isn't just a reflex or a search for some pleasurable condition; this is evidence of something larger and potentially much more complicated at work. Elephants act almost like families.
  3. Dogs get jealous: Dog owners have long noticed and joked about canine behavior that looks a little like jealousy, e.g., the way a dog will bark when its owners embrace each other and seem to ignore the dog. But a 2008 study by Austrian scientists showed that dogs really do feel a primitive form of jealousy. After giving a pair of dogs treats when they performed handshakes, scientists stopped giving one of the dogs the treats, and that dog quickly stopped playing along and even expresses stress and physical annoyance when the other animal kept getting fed. We've always projected emotions onto our pets, but the truth is that they've got their own emotions to express.
  4. Dolphins use culture for learning just like we do: Dolphins have long been regarded as some of the smartest, friendliest animals on the planet. They've also been observed acting altruistically, helping human swimmers ward off shark attacks. But a few years ago, researchers discovered that dolphins are remarkably adept at using tools, and moreover, that dolphins actually pass their knowledge through a training process. That's a huge thing to learn, and the first time any evidence of what's called "cultural transmission" was discovered in an ocean-dwelling mammal. Dolphins in Australia would break pieces of sponge from the seabed and use them on their noses as tools in the foraging process. Scientists learned that those dolphins using the sponges were maternally related, meaning they had passed the knowledge through a family line.
  5. Crows remember faces: Studies conducted recently at the University of Washington revealed that crows have better memory and flock-wide communication skills than people originally suspected. Scientists donned special masks (modeled after cavemen) and then caught and released several birds, after which they would wear the masks while strolling through campus on a route past the locations where the birds had been caught. Crows would call out and squawk at them, and over time, more and more of them would swoop down to scold them or sound an alarm for others. In other words, the crows remembered the face of the man who had put them in danger and shouted out a warning for other crows whenever they saw him reappear, and they did this repeatedly over at least two years.
  6. Rats have dreams (if not aspirations): In 2001, researchers at MIT implanted electrodes into the hippocampi of several rats and monitored their neuron activity as they ran mazes and ate treats. They then monitored the rats' brains while the animals slept and discovered that similar areas fired up when the rats hit REM sleep. Comparing the info showed that the rats' brains were essentially replaying the events of their day, and in some instances, scientists were able to say what specific part of each maze the rats were dreaming about at a given moment based on their brain activity. Researchers later found that rats also dream about their daily activities during slow-wave sleep, the later stages of REM sleep. Granted, they don't have much of an exciting day to dream about, but it's shocking to realize that their brains, like ours, often just regurgitate the day's events when asleep.
  7. Parrots are about as smart as young children: After gathering information for decades, scientists came to the conclusion in 2006 that parrots are generally on par with 5-year-old humans when it comes to basic intelligence, though their language skills only really compete with 2-year-olds. In other words, they can identify hundreds of objects from their daily lives and respond to simple questions, though the ability to form complex sentences is beyond them. Alex, an African gray parrot in the study, was able to do basic math, identify colors, and tell researchers what he wanted to do with his day.
  8. Apes use tools and share that knowledge with each other: As chronicled in the documentary Ape Genius, apes are so much smarter than we often give them credit for being. They aren't just our closest living relative; they're actually known to use tools for living and fashion spears for hunting, just like our primitive ancestors. There are still, obviously, major things that separate us from apes, including the ability to regulate our emotions and form advanced cultures based on common emotional ideals. But apes mirror humans in their willingness to cooperate on major projects like seeking food and making shelter, which puts them closer to us, even if permanently removed.
  9. Cats make memories for life: Just about every memory a cat makes is one it makes for life. This means that its experiences as a kitten will play a pivotal role in shaping what kind of personality it develops later on. Positive encounters with people and other animals (like dogs) will generally make for a friendlier cat, while abuse and other negative experiences will make the animal more skittish. Cats are already prone to flight, so an early encounter with a mean dog or horrid owner will only heighten those responses and make the cat believe that all dogs or people are dangers. It's up to owners to be responsible and demonstrate loving care for the cat from birth.
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